The long delay in granting farm workers basic workplace rights reflects a political quid pro quo between the former Conservative government and farmers (which I detail in a chapter in a forthcoming book). Not surprisingly, there has been a fair bit of opposition to Bill 6 from both the farm community and conservative politicians.
A rather odd line of critique that has emerged is that this bill is some kind of collusion between organized labour and the NDs to unionize more workers. In criticizing the speed of the bill (much of it is effective January 1), Wildrose leader Brian Jean said in the House on November 19:
Mr. Jean: …Albertans have to wonder: is the haste related to union organizing efforts that the Premier’s friends and backers are planning? (p. 540)Sheila Gunn Reid (a columnist for Rebel Media) picked up this theme on November 20:
Then there's the NDP's favorite part: the new law will also allow for the unionization of farm workers...
Allowing farm workers to unionize grows the NDP union base by a potential 60000 workers over 40 thousand farms and ranches across Alberta. And there's more.
How many extra unionized government employees will be needed to handle at least 40,000 WCB files? What about all the occupational health and safety inspectors? The government will need to hire many more to pop in on those 40,000 farms. The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees must be rubbing their greedy hands together right now.Certainly organized labour has pressured for farm worker rights, although most of the pressure has been around guaranteeing farm workers basic safety right and injury compensation.
I can’t think any instance where I’ve seen union leaders rubbing their hands together anticipating huge organizing drives on Alberta farms.
Some basic research helps explain why (1) union organizing on farms is unlikely and (2) how Reid's claims, in particular, are specious:
There were 37,852 paid farm workers in 2011, not 60,000 (that's the number of owner-operators--i.e., employers).
In terms of which employees might realistically be unionized, we can likely discount all 22,254 paid part-year workers. Transitory, seasonal employees are unlikely to organize and are uneconomical bargaining units for a union to represent.
Of the 15,598 full-year employees, many will precluded from unionization because they are single employees (bargaining units must have at least two people). Others will have managerial duties so will be excluded. At a guess, we’re likely looking at about 7000 or 8000 potential union members.
Whether unions will bother organizing a bunch of small farm is unclear. Small bargaining units are expensive to organize and service and campaigns often fail because of the lack of distance between workers and employers in small workplaces.
If I had to lay money, I’d guess in five years we’ll see fewer than 500 farm workers with union representation. Most will be in large operations such as feedlots and other industrialized animal operations. This prediction illustrates that having a right and being able to exercise it are often different things.
Overall, allowing farm workers to unionize looks more like doing the right thing (constitutionally and morally speaking) than some sort of meaningful sop to the labour movement.
In terms of the WCB, although there were 43,234 operations classified as farms in 2011, only 12,798 operations employed paid farm workers. This amounts to about a 7% increase in the number of employer accounts. Most of the staff time at WCB is, however, spent managing claims. The addition of 38,000 far workers is only about a 2% increase in employee numbers—or, at best, 30-odd staff (on a base of about 1700).
As for the claim that AUPE will be rubbing its hands at the prospects of more WCB workers being hired. Well, the WCB is almost entirely non-unionized. So that whole line of critique by Reid is essentially baseless.
What will be most interesting is watching which way the PCs break on the issue:
- Do they side with the Wildrose (and thus fight with the Wildrose over the rural rump vote)?
- Do they side with the NDs (and thereby recant 44 years of their own policy)?
- Or do they stay silent and hope this blows over (thereby shedding some of their remaining rural support)?
-- Bob Barnetson